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Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy speaks about the Hamilton Place mall shooting incident.

Most every driver probably has seen the people with the "Homeless, please help" signs standing at intersections hoping for handouts.

It's pretty common for folks walking downtown to be hit up for spare change.

But panhandlers are a problem everywhere in Chattanooga these days, city council members say, loitering near ATM machines or blocking driveways or doorways of businesses, demanding money to go away.

A man begging for money was seen walking between the lanes of cars on Northpoint Boulevard last week, knocking on windows when traffic stopped, Chattanooga Councilman Ken Smith said.

It's a citywide problem, and it needs a citywide solution, Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy told city council members Tuesday, briefing them on progress toward a revised panhandling ordinance they may be called on soon to approve.

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The city's existing panhandling ordinance, passed in 2002, forbids begging in the downtown tourism and restaurant district, but many business owners say it hasn't stopped the practice.

Even if police are called, Roddy said, the panhandlers just move to another spot and keep begging. The city attorney's office has been working with the council, particularly Councilwoman Carol Berz, and the police department to create an ordinance for the whole of Chattanooga. Officers could give panhandlers a $50 ticket, he said, but they also could check whether they're wanted or to offer services to the homeless and helpless.

"That will help us deal with that across the board," he said.

Council members agreed panhandling is a problem in all their districts and asked about the nuts and bolts of the ordinance. Roddy and Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett said there are several approaches, from teaching businesses and neighborhood associations not to give money to beggars to posting signs on property forbidding trespassing or loitering. That gives police a handle to use on beggars under state law, which carries heavier penalties than a city ordinance.

A 2015 state law also bans "aggressive" panhandling, meaning touching, following or intimidating people in attempts to get money. An arrest under than law will lead to jail rather than just a citation.

Roddy said a panhandler's sad tale can touch people's hearts, but it most often isn't true. Studies show 92 percent of money given to beggars is spent on alcohol, drugs or prostitutes, he said.

"It's not a hand up, not a hand out. Actually, it's a foot placed on the shoulder pushing someone down."

Councilman Anthony Byrd worried, though, about innocent people who might get caught up by a panhandling ordinance. Sometimes bereaved families stand on the roadside and ask passersby to help with a loved one's burial costs, he said. And neighborhood groups or schoolchildren sometimes solicit for a good cause, such as school sports teams.

Roddy said he thinks his officers won't have any trouble telling the difference.

"I don't think any of your police officers would try to write a citation to a group of young girls raising money," he said.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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